LEXINGTON, KY. (WDRB) -- Let the record show that the last play Joker Phillips called as University of Kentucky coach in Commonwealth Stadium was to take a knee at his opponent's one yard line at the end of the Wildcats' 34-3 win over Samford.
It would've been nice to go out with touchdown, but Phillips wasn't going to stand on symbolism. Or maybe he was. Taking the knee was the classy thing to do, and for whatever else he has done as UK coach and however else he has managed the program, the last two weeks have been marked by class.
Samford coach Pat Sullivan noticed. He's been through what Phillips is going through. He went 1-10 at TCU in 1997 and was gone, though he had recruited a pretty fair running back named Ladanian Tomlinson, who was waiting in the wings.
"What a class thing that he did by kneeling on the ball instead of running up one more score, he could have done that," Sullivan said. "You know, there are not many people in college football that are doing those things. I told him at the end of the game that it was really a class thing and I wish him well."
Phillips has been candid but respectful since Mitch Barnhart fired him two weeks ago. He agreed to finish out the season for his players. But last night, as he was carried off the field before a scant Commonwealth Stadium crowd, the mix of emotions was a bit too much to process, and it was evident in his comments after the game.
His words were heartfelt, and worth hearing at length.
"I'm pretty numb to all of this," Phillips said. "I understand it. But it's a numbing feeling that you just realize it's time to go. It's time to go, and I understand that. Very seldom do you get 10 years at a place. The 10 years has been -- it seems like it's longer than that, but it also has been a grind for me. It has. It's been a grind for me."
What's next for Phillips?
"I'm probably going to sleep, get some sleep, first of all. We poured our all into this, my wife and I did, and we'll appreciate all the things that went into it. We'll appreciate all the parents' trusting in us, which we appreciate all the opportunities we got. We appreciate all the things that we got to do. We probably wouldn't have ever taken a trip to Ethiopia to take some of our kids, heading up there through Jason (Schlafer – associate AD) and Mitch Barnhart suggesting those things to give our kids an opportunity. I got to do a lot of things in this last 10 years, and it's been rewarding.
"I remember when we were going over the second time, I said, ‘You know what, Jason, I've thought about not going to Ethiopia.' We've created Jeremy Jarmon's position; ‘I said, maybe we should send Jeremy.' But then when I got there, I said I would not want to miss the opportunity to see Larry Warford's face as he's in one of the mud huts, and I wouldn't want to miss that opportunity.
After Saturday's game, Warford was one of those, Matt Smith was the other, who rushed to Phillips to carry him off the field.
"He's a champion in our hearts," Warford said.
Even later, when the crowd had left, Phillips and his wife, Dr. Leslie Phillips, wanted to return the favor.
"I was telling our team, I had an experience when I went to play with the Washington Redskins that I walked out of the locker room and there's nobody there to greet me after. There was no friends, no family, because I was in an unfamiliar (place). My family didn't come to see me play, and I mentioned it to my wife, and she vouched that she did not want any of our players to come out of the locker room and not have anybody to greet them, so she's out there now greeting them. I said, ‘Why did you do it?' She says because she loved the kids, and I think that's important.
"We did this thing the right way, and we've done a lot of things here. We've been to eight bowl games out of the 15 (years he's been at Kentucky). None of them have asterisks beside them. None of them have asterisks beside them, okay, and that's important to me."
Next week, Phillips will have the surreal opportunity to end his UK tenure with a second straight win over Tennessee. When he took over at UK, beating Tennessee even once seemed like a mountain to climb. The program needs major work on many fronts. But overcoming a messy breakup with its old coach is not one of them. That's hardly a firm foundation, given the SEC challenges UK faces. Its future will always be a longshot.
For Phillips, however, it's a safe bet he'll be back on the sidelines somewhere, whenever he's ready.